Makers and entrepreneurs have set up shop in Downtown Kalamazoo since the county was organized in the 1800s. Products including Gibson guitars, Shakespeare fishing rods and reels, and Checker cabs were not only dreamed-up in the city but brought to reality. Although some of these products are no longer made here, the entrepreneurial spirit never left our region.
Year-round locals and tourists can be found wandering the Kalamazoo Mall paying patronage to locally-owned shops. While across the U.S. 43 percent of small businesses have temporarily closed their doors, Kalamazoo’s city center welcomed several new businesses recently to the community. “I think it’s a sign of resilience and hope,” said Jennifer Kitson Jelenek, chief operating officer of the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership. “This has been a very tough time across the board for businesses, for people, and for the economy. We are so thrilled to see that in light of all this, we continue to see business owners and entrepreneurs be creative, be innovative, and adapt their business models. What’s great about that is you look around and realize there’s so much skill and creativity in the community we live in.”
Two of the new businesses calling downtown Kalamazoo home are Bee Joyful Shop and Samson’s Barbershop. While both were scheduled to open their doors earlier in the year, the shop owners made use of the delay by sticking to their entrepreneurial spirit and innovating.
Jessica Thompson, owner of Bee Joyful Shop, used the time to boost her company’s digital presence by fixing up its website and boosting social media, including a TikTok account. With almost 42,000 followers of its TikTok account, Jessica credits the platform for helping to introduce her products and shop to a national audience. “There are businesses out there; there are DIY (do it yourself) things. There are different sides to TikTok, and I’m on the eco side of it and the small business side. It has been phenomenal,” said Jessica. “We’ve had 20 people come from Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Washington. Someone drove down from the UP (Upper Peninsula)!”
Sourcing 80 percent of products in Bee Joyful Shop from Michigan Makers, Jessica is dedicated to supporting local and already feels a strong tie to her fellow small business owners. “When you build those relationships with people, it’s not just business; it’s friends,” said Jessica. “I feel that we are a great addition to what we already have downtown. There’s definitely a feel for sustainability, healthy living, and unique products.”
Adam Muncy and Jake Hamlet, the team behind Samson’s, used the delay of the grand opening of their brick and mortar shop to develop new products and expand their international business. When the time finally came for Adam and Jake to take over the lease, they were able to set up shop over a long weekend. Adam credits the quick turnaround to the support the duo has received from its bank, First National Bank of Michigan, family, and community.
“Samson’s, if you look at it from the outside, you could say it’s just me and Jake, but it’s not a company if it’s just me and Jake. The barbershop doesn’t exist if it’s just me and Jake. The products don’t exist if it’s just me and Jake. It’s all of our vendors, partners, family, and the community investing in us that makes Samson’s a company, and allows us to be us, prosper, and grow. Without Kalamazoo, we may not exist anymore.”
While the two are still getting used to their new space, Adam said they are still humbled every time they reflect on the experience. “We come in every morning and flip the lights on, and we’re just amazed that this spot is ours, and it’s so beautiful. We can be a part of it. We’re excited to collaborate and get to know our neighbors.”
The new stores not only bring new opportunities to the downtown space but also serve as a reminder of the joy Kalamazoo’s entrepreneurs bring to our region. “It’s exciting to see this kind of new energy and new life come in downtown, even in a time that’s been very difficult and challenging for so many,” said Jennifer. “It is so important that we as community members continue to support these local businesses during this time.”